The Geneva II Syria peace conference is due to begin next week, but it won't yield anything substantial. At the time of writing the U.S. and Russia cannot agree over whether Iran, one of the Assad regime’s strongest allies, should participate, and the U.S. and the U.K. are so desperate to have the Syrian National Coalition rebel group attend that they have threatened to withhold aid if it does not. The Syrian National Council, a key member of the Syrian National Coalition, said earlier this month that it will not attend the talks, but will vote on whether to attend the peace conference on Friday.
One rebel group that is not attending is the relatively new Islamic Front, which is estimated to have up to 60,000 fighters and has recently been fighting the Al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) with the Western-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Jabhat al-Nusra, another Al Qaeda-linked group, in northern Syria.
Unsurprisingly, the Assad regime has capitalized on some of the fighting between the Islamic Front, Jabhat al-Nusra, moderate rebels, and ISIL, and is now in control of territory surrounding the northern city of Aleppo.
As their name implies, ISIL aren't just interested in the Levant (which includes Syria). Earlier this month, ISIL declared that an Islamic state had been established in Fallujah, the Iraqi city in the Sunni-majority Anbar province, less than 50 miles west of Baghdad. ISIL also captured large parts of Ramadi which, like Fallujah, is in Anbar province.
Although the Islamic Front has been fighting ISIL alongside the FSA, they are hardly secular moderates. According to The Long War Journal, the Islamic Front characterizes itself as “a comprehensive Islamic, social, political, and military formation that aims to completely bring down the Assad regime in Syria, to build an Islamic State wherein God's law [Shar' Allah], the Glorious and the Almighty, alone is sovereign ...."
Foreign Policy reported last month on the U.S. considering talking with the Islamic Front. In that article, Foreign Policy quoted Zahran Alloush, the Islamic Front’s military chief, who said, "The jihadists will wash the filth of the rafida [a slur used to describe Shia] from Greater Syria, they will wash it forever, if Allah wills it." Alloush said on Twitter that the Islamic Front will blacklist those who attend Geneva II.
It is not as if the U.S. is unaware of the Islamic Front’s worrying ideology; the U.S. and the U.K. both suspended non-lethal aid to rebels in northern Syria after the Islamic Front took over bases belonging to the FSA.
However, it was recently reported that the U.S. is considering resuming sending non-lethal aid to rebels in Syria, despite the fact that, as a senior Obama administration official told The New York Times, “There’s no way to say 100 percent that it would not end up in the hands of the Islamic Front.”
The Times went on the report that the U.S. had made an attempt to talk with the Islamic Front, but were rejected when mid-level State Department officials were sent instead of the U.S ambassador to Syria.
The unfortunate reality is that the Islamic Front, now the largest rebel group in Syria, is almost certainly going to play a significant role in the rest of the Syrian civil war. That the Islamic Front will not be participating in the Geneva II conference means that the conference will not result in any agreement that can be successfully implemented.
The rise of the Islamic Front and its fighting with ISIL should serve as a reminder to the Obama administration that non-intervention is the best policy when it comes to Syria. Assad, whose regime is currently taking advantage of the recent infighting, heads an odious government that has inflicted awful and unforgivable brutality on Syrians. Nevertheless, unpleasant Islamists make up a significant portion of the rebels in Syria, and it is far from obvious that their victory would lessen the degree of human suffering in Syria more than an Assad regime victory.